Turkish memories

It was 1974 and I was a TEFL teacher at St Giles school of English in Oxford Street, London. It was my first real full time teaching job and I had been given the beginners class and upper intermediate to advanced classes. The one thing to be avoided in conversation was sex, region and politics.

In my advanced class was an rich arrogant upperclass 'fils de papa' from Limassol, Cyprus who used to put his feet up on the table and a Turkish bomber pilot from Istanbul. The atmosphere in the classroom was tense as the Turks had just invaded Cyprus and taken the north of the island. The management, who had a contract with the Turkish Embassy in London, decided to move the Cypriot boy to a more advanced class saying his English was too good for the class! Problem solved.

In another class I had more Turks; a captain, a General, a policeman called Sammy and a pharmaceutical student of 25. It was a nice friendly group but they complained they could not meet English people to converse with. I responded by explaining I had just bought my first flat in London and if my home had been in order, I would have gladly invited them for tea and sympathy speaking English.

They jumped at the idea. The General announced that they would come and paint, with a 70s paint technique, my kitchen walls and take down the offending wooden typically 70s partition. I agreed. They arrived, acted on orders and executed the job in one day!

After that, they were regular visitors chez moi and even taught me basic tourist Turkish that I still remember today. The captain suggested that I went to Istanbul for Bayram which was in early January and as my birthday was on 30th December. Thus I thought I would go for a week and stay at the historic Pera Palas hotel.

The Turks got excited. As I was going with almost empty suitcases in order to buy objects for my flat knowing my love for traditional things, they asked if I would take gifs to their respective families. No problem. They rushed out and bought the whole of Marks and Spencers. Even the General gave me a fishing rod to bring into Turkey. I recall it was specially wrapped and looked like a rifle. However, I was waved through immigration and am sure the General had informed the Police of my arrival. I was told to just leave it at the hotel reception and it would be picked up! 

I arrived at the historic Pera Palas to find at the entrance standing by the great proud columns, two groups of families who did not know each other but who spoke a little English eagerly waiting for their gifts. One family to the right and the other to the left. Each family had strict military instructions to take care of me all the hours of the day. I was protected, a single young woman on her own in a mans world. Unheard of in the mid 70's.

My time was no longer my own. I was suffocated with kindness. Lunch was a big meze affair. Everything was tepid I recall but delicious. I was driven here and there, lunch, tea and dinner. I only had breakfast at the hotel and remember the noise from the traffic in my bedroom if I left the window open. Night was the only time I was alone as my days were full up to the hilt.

On my birthday, the fiancée of the young student arrived presenting me with a beautiful photo album embellished with an embossed metal cover as a present. I later put all my black and white Turkish photos in it. On my last day his mother turned up with an enormous glass jar of picked vegetables hoping I would carry it back to London. Of course I tactfully had to refuse.

As for Sammy the policeman, he turned up at my hotel having changed his job from general police to tourist police telling me he was fed up with violence. However, when he took me to Grand Bazaar, he showed me the cosh he had to carry. A small 'stick' which extended to quite a length. He seemed ashamed he had to carry it. When the market dealers saw us walking together the prices were quoted at the bottom, not the top, saving me a lot of bargaining time despite having to endure the inevitable glasses of mint tea poured from a height from their silver plated teapots. You needed bargaining hours in the market and the Turks have thousands of years of experience. You, as a foreigner, cannot win!

Back I came to London with a brass collapsible table, a portable water jug, a plant pot, a coffee carrying tray like the waiters carry around the market with a handle and 2 traditional silver necklaces.

Well, it is impossible to come back from Istanbul without buying what you don't need! The best sales line I ever heard the last time I visited Istanbul 2 years ago was 'How can I help you spend your money'.

Written 19/1/17 in the Gul Hanim guest house in a working class old district of Northern Nicosia, Cyprus.